What I'm Seeing Now


Sometimes A Trial Separation Doesn't Work

Sometimes after a period of being together, a separation happens.  Often it is not the fault of either party.  I had three different houses last week with a no-fault separation, and thought it might be time for a post.

The couple on the right has been at least near each other for 10 years.  At one time they were happily married, but pressures and tensions finally got the best of the relationship, and they were forced to separate.  The gap you see between the large conduit under the meter box and the box itself opened up some time after the construction of the house.

Seldom is soil around a house sufficiently compacted.  Things settle.  Often the soil settles 6, 8, 10, or 12 inches!  In this case the soil must have settled about 8 inches, judging from the distance between it and the foundation paint.

As it settled it put pressure on the underground conduit protecting the service conductors.  Eventually the pressure became too great for the connection under the meter -- you can see that it completely snapped off, and is still probably slowly pulling apart.  You can also see that the caulking has been affected.

This will eventually become a problem.  In this case it was a problem.  The three large cables between the conduit and box are the electrical service conductors.  They are carrying the electrical load to the house.  The house was intended to use 200amps for its needs.

When a conduit like this opens up the gap can admit water.  In this case it has, apparently for some time.

Inside the house, half the house registered about 40 volts!  The other half registered almost 160!  An acceptable voltage range would be in the neighborhood of 108 - 130.  Exactly 120 volts is ideal and happens when the neutral line properly divides the 240 volts of power to the house in half.  Looseness in (or damage to) the neutral service conductor can cause wild fluctuations in voltage.  Anything different than that can cause many problems.  Appliances and fixtures don't want too much or too little voltage - motors can literally burn up and light bulbs will burn out. 

The conductors are aluminum.  If even the smallest hole in the conductor's insulation exists and the aluminum is exposed to water, over time that aluminum will react and literally powderize.  Eventually one or the other of these conductors will completely dissolve and service to the house will terminate.  It is not a cheap fix when this happens.                                                                                                            

There is another issue.  The settlement also affected the electric meter box.  It too settled, though its movement stopped when the conduit separated.

This is aluminum siding and you can see that underneath there is no plastic wrap.  The wood sheathing is exposed to moisture intrusion.  Just as water does not mix with electrical, it does not mix with wood either, especially when the wood cannot dry out afterward.

The living room wall and floor molding demonstrated staining exactly under where this box connects to the house.  And we know where the water came from.

What's the solution to this problem?  During construction some builders, those with good foresight, will create a slip joint where the conduit under the meter box is larger than the one bringing the service conductors to the house.  The joint leaves plenty of room for settlement.  When this is done, the soil can settle as much as it wants and the conductors are never exposed to water.  Admittedly, 10 years ago such slip joints were not common.  But I still see this problem on newer homes, unfortunately.  Sometimes common sense and history do not get the message through...

My recommendation:  go out and look at the connection under your electric meter.  If there is no slip joint, you could be facing a problem sometime soon.  It is MUCH easier to handle this proactively before it happens than after.


Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC  

Based in Bristow, serving all of Northern Virginia.

Office (703) 330-6388   Cell (703) 585-7560


Comment balloon 9 commentsJay Markanich • March 09 2009 08:05AM


Oh Jay....it's why we built an exposed ranch...separate furnaces and air....another bedroom and bath..marriage works better with a little separation.....:)

Posted by Sally K. & David L. Hanson, WI Realtors - Luxury - Divorce (EXP Realty 414-525-0563) over 10 years ago

S & D - so who snores?

Nevermind... my bad!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 10 years ago

Jay: Reading you post is like having a conversation with my father-in-law. He is an engineer (worked on the World Fair in New York in "64) and loves to point stuff like this out around my house. Your work is fascinating, and I'm happy to say all is well with my slip joint!

Posted by Susan Gonzalez Faux painting murals atlanta (Marietta Mural & Decorative Design) over 10 years ago

Susan - I slipped off a roof once and I can tell you that all is not well with my joint(s)...

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 10 years ago

Jay with 160 volts on one leg someone would sure be separating themselves from a lot of green keeping the light bulbs replaced:)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 10 years ago

Thank you for the tip, and I will be sure to check it when I get home from work tonight.

Posted by David Width Jr. over 10 years ago

Charles - and the flip side with the 40 volts!  If the fridge is on that side of the house, it will soon burn out too!

David - just another service we offer...

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 10 years ago

It goes to show a little extra effort at the time of construction could have saved alot of trouble later.

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) over 10 years ago

James - well, this type of thing is very expensive later.  No time to do it right the first time...

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 10 years ago

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